Some grads struggle to make ends meet

“Positive reforms will not happen without a union,” seventh-year anthropology doctoral student Joe Feinberg said in an e-mail.

By Ilana Kowarski

“If I had more money, I could save up and some day start a family. I wouldn’t have to feel bad about going to the theater once in a while,” seventh-year anthropology doctoral student Joe Feinberg told the MAROON in an e-mail. “I might be able to work fewer hours so that I could devote time to my research and other writing and organizing. But also I wouldn’t feel like a second- or third-class person in the University,”

Feinberg is one of many graduate students campaigning for the University to recognize Graduate Student United (GSU) as a union. Graduate students must pay Advanced Residency (AR) tuition after their fourth year at the school. GSU has been campaigning for higher wages and lower tuition for years and declared its intent to unionize this March.

The University does not plan to increase wages, decrease tuition, or recognize GSU as a union, Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen said.

Feinberg said he and his wife–a graduate student at Northwestern—live on a tight budget and can’t start a family, though they would like to. “We’re living below the poverty line. We can try to economize, but if you have children there’s no way you can support them on this amount of money,” Feinberg said in an interview, where he wore a GSU button.

“Positive reforms will not happen without a union,” Feinberg said in the e-mail. “A union says that we can no longer be ignored.”

Cohen and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum announced in February that the University could not afford to eliminate AR tuition in the current economic climate, and wrote that, though they appreciated “the need to ensure that a University of Chicago education is affordable to all,” they believed doctoral students had a responsibility to contribute to their education. While rates vary by division, typically about 80 percent of the tuition is paid by the division and the rest is either waived if the graduate student is teaching or the student must pay the remaining 20 percent if they are not currently teaching.

The University already increased graduate student wages in 2008, Cohen pointed out in an interview. In 2008, the University doubled TA quarterly salaries from $1,500 to $3,000 and increased graduate instructor quarterly salaries from $3,500 to $5,000. These salaries are independent of any tuition fees waived by the University.

Feinberg said AR tuition is used to coerce graduate students into providing cheap labor and to discourage them from seeking higher paying work outside the University of Chicago, since the fee is only charged to students who do not work for the University.

Cohen said she was upset by GSU statements that graduate students live in poverty. “Graduate students are not like fast-food workers paid minimum wage. There are poor people in the U.S. with no prospect of a different existence. We’re talking about students who will soon no longer be in this situation. We should be very careful with the imagery we’re using,” she said.

“That’s not to say that they are not technically making wages below the poverty line, but just to say that a lot of people would jump for the opportunities they have,” Cohen said.

Based on figures calculated two years ago by the University’s Graduate Student Life Working Group, U of C graduate students are still paid less than the average wage offered at peer institutions in 2008. “In a study of peer institutions, as well as other schools where we would have expected teaching pay to be less competitive than at Chicago and its peers, we found the average pay for an 11-week course (reckoned at 20 hrs/week) to be $5,868, with a median pay level of $5,018,” the Working Group wrote.

Feinberg said GSU is advocating for a financial position similar to that of its peers. “Grad students shouldn’t and don’t claim that we are the most miserable people in the world. And we shouldn’t demand to live better than anyone else,” Feinberg said in an e-mail.

Duff Morton, a GSU member and fourth-year anthropology and SSA graduate student, said the University should not make graduate school prohibitively expensive. “Our wages are still at the very bottom of comparison groups. We’re at the bottom of the barrel.”